March 2, 2017
In holding public employees’ communications on private accounts are subject to disclosure, does Supreme Court offer commentary about presidential tweets?
Recognizing that, “in today’s environment, not all employment-related activity occurs during a conventional workday, or in an employer-maintained workplace,” the Supreme Court in City of San Jose v. Superior Court today holds that “when a city employee uses a personal account to communicate about the conduct of public business, the writings may be subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act.” Otherwise, the court says, “government officials could hide their most sensitive, and potentially damning, discussions in [personal] accounts.” The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Carol Corrigan potentially exposes to public view certain redevelopment-related emails and text messages on private electronic devices by San Jose’s mayor, two city council members, and their staffs.
The case raises an interesting question of statutory interpretation. As the opinion states, the issue “concerns how laws, originally designed to cover paper documents, apply to evolving methods of electronic communication.”
In describing that evolution, the court observes, “the ease and immediacy of electronic communication has encouraged a commonplace tendency to share fleeting thoughts and random bits of information, with varying degrees of import, often to broad audiences.” Whether it was intended or not, that comment is descriptive of communications by executive officeholders other than the mayor of San Jose.
The court reverses the Sixth District Court of Appeal, rejecting the lower court’s reliance on a presumption that “public officials conduct official business in the public’s best interest.”